Monday, July 23, 2007

Driving on the Left

I didn't do any driving in England; my husband and I agreed that it would be better if one of us did all the driving, so we'd only have one learning curve. Besides, he did it last time too. The two hardest things about driving on the left turn out to be lane position, and right turns. Right turns is a fairly obvious issue, since in the U.S. it's a no-brainer and the left turn is across traffic; fortunately he only turned right into the near lane once, and nobody was coming. Lane position was more subtle; if you aren't used to being in the left lane, you also aren't sure where in the left lane you should be; and you really aren't used to having traffic come at you on the right, so you edge left. We clipped a lot of left-hand curbs the first week or so. The other big issue is pedestrian: which way do you look for oncoming traffic when you cross the street?

Driving in England is complicated by the fact that most of the roads were there centuries before the cars were. They're narrow; they wind; and all too many of them are lined right up to the road verge by 6 foot stone walls, especially in rural areas. (Shoulder? What shoulder?) In some rural areas they're lined right up to the road verge by 6 foot hedgerows which are growing out of 6 foot stone walls; a quick glance to the side just shows leaves, but it's not the whole story. This combined with the American or Continental driver's tendency to hug the left curb makes riding in the (left side) passenger seat pretty nerve-wracking. He says I was very restrained. Of course, in other rural areas there are no walls at all; that's when you get sheep on the road. We saw a sign on Dartmoor warning, "Sheep lying on road," and it was quite right. The other side effect of the walls and hedgerows is that, unless you're driving through something like a national park, you get no view of the countryside from the road. All you see is hedgerow (or wall).

In towns, the streets are not really wide enough for two lanes of traffic plus two sets of parked cars; in fact, they're not really wide enough for two lanes of traffic plus one set of parked cars, and some of them just aren't wide enough, period. We live in a neighborhood somewhat like that, which has given rise to a maneuver we call the "Rockridge do-si-do", where oncoming traffic slows and moves aside into open curb spaces to allow each other to pass. They do this in England, too - but they don't slow. They do it at 35 miles an hour. It still amazes me that the only real accident we had happened at 2 miles per hour (trying to get out from a tight space behind a truck on one of those narrow streets, he misjudged the left distance and forcibly removed the passenger mirror.)

As far as I can tell, there is no custom in England that says you should park facing in the direction of the traffic on the side of the street you're on. People park any old way, sometimes on the sidewalk. If there is a sidewalk.

As cars have gotten wider, so have roads. In some rural areas you find yourself driving past a house (usually a stone house) less than a foot away, because the road has been widened right up to the wall; some of the houses had doors and windows filled in because you can't use them with A road traffic sailing by at 50 MPH, 6 inches away.

We rented a C-class Mercedes because it's a car he knows. In the U.S., this is a smallish sedan. In the U.K., it's one of the biggest cars on the road; but it gets 35 MPG or better. Which is good, because petrol cost 99p (about $2) per liter or about $8 per gallon. If you don't like our gas prices, try $90 a tankful; we have some of the cheapest gas in the world. And don't let Ford Motor Company con you that they can't make small, fuel efficient cars. The roads were crawling with little Fords, they're very popular in the U.K., and since the U.K. is part of the EU, they have to meet European mileage standards. Ford just wants to keep selling F-150s to dumb Americans.


  1. Dear K: The business about left hand (or is that right hand on the left side??) strikes an all too familiar note. We also had a Mercedes Sedan on our trek through Scotland, and had the same kinds of difficulties and observations as you did. My favorite problem is the turnarounds. With four lane traffic coming into turnarounds, you MUST KNOW BEFORE YOU COME TO THE CIRCLE which exit you wish to use (or which of the other three or four connecting roads you wish to enter). Those wishing to take the first exit (to your left--NOT your right) MUST be in the far left hand lane; those wishing to take a subsequent exit CANNOT be in the far left hand lane> This happened to us each time we came to a turnaround (a traffic feature we don't use in America, or at least not in the same way)--each time eliciting loud and angry honks from the natives as to WHY AREN'T YOU BLOODY IDIOTS IN THE CORRECT LANE?). Another weird thing is they have very few gas stations in Europe generally. This is especially true in Italy, where what few stations there are seem hidden and are tiny, like the old 1940's convenience stations we used to have here, with one small pump in front of a soda shop. This means you fill up when you have the chance, and don't count on finding one on short notice. In rural Scotland, the roads are so narrow in the countryside, that they make little bulges in the road, where one passes. If you see someone coming a quarter mile away, the first person to the bulge waits there for the oncoming care to pass. All very civilized, I'm sure. The Brits are used to queues and polite arrangements like this, since they must; that's not a virtue out of a necessity, or is it? Their idea of practical is usually stinginess. I'm sure we'll be in that situation in another hundred years, if population continues to mushroom.

    The other thing is that if you get off on the wrong road, and want to turn around, it can be a real bear, especially in towns. There are no curbs in the usual sense, and the driveways--such as they are--aren't welcoming; going south of Edinburgh one afternoon on our way down to Dunsyre, we got diverted literally 20 miles out of our way, simply because we couldn't find a way to double back. My wife isn't a great map reader, especially under pressure, so it's a recipe for hysteria and general frustration. "Oh, fuck! We should have taken that turn 2 miles back!" "But where are we now?" "Damned if I know!" "Well, where's North?" "I don't know, I've been reading it upside down." Etc.

  2. Curtis, we didn't have much trouble with the roundabouts; we did notice the relative shortage of gas stations. On the other hand, since our Mercedes was getting 37 MPG on the highways, we didn't have to fill up all that often (a good thing given that we were paying something like $8 a gallon for gas!); and if you're on the big motorways, all the service points have American style gas stations.

    I can sympathize with the problem of turning around. There were places where one simply couldn't turn around. I'm a pretty good map reader myself, but England (and Wales) drove me crazy. An American road will tell you, from time to time, where you are - that is, what road are you on - in addition to where you're going. English roads, and particularly English streets in towns, only tell you where you're going - Little Doddering, this way. They never tell you where you are, as in, what road you're on - which complicates significantly the use of a map. Street crossings in towns, I noticed, show the names of the cross streets only, never the street you're on; if you missed the sign when you turned into the street, you're out of luck.